Tag Archives: Tal Petrosian Spassky and Korchnoi

Join the Club

This review has been printed in the May 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Soltis, Andy. Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Kortchnoi: A Chess Multibiography with 207 Games. Jefferson: McFarland Publishing, 2019. ISBN 978-1476671468. HB 394pp.

Tanner, Robert. Vera Menchik: A Biography of the First Women’s World Chess Champion, with 350 Games. Jefferson: McFarland Publishing, 2016. ISBN 978-0786496020. HB 328pp.

It will not be news that women are underrepresented in chess, both historically and in the current day, to readers of Chess Life. We know all too well that there are not enough women playing our game, and whatever the reasons for the disparity might be, the new US Chess initiative is both welcome and overdue.

Nor will it be news to fans of chess literature that women are underrepresented in chess books and literature. There are precious few women authors – Judit and Susan Polgar, Alexey Root, and US Chess Women’s Program Director Jennifer Shahade are among the few that come to mind – and even fewer titles devoted to women’s chess or leading female players.

So I, like many interested in chess history, was excited to get my hands on Robert Tanner’s Vera Menchik: A Biography of the First Women’s World Chess Champion, with 350 Games, published by McFarland in late 2016. Tanner’s is the first serious biography of Menchik in English, although Jennifer Shahade has written extensively about Menchik in her 2005 Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport.

The basics of Menchik’s life and career are described in Part I.3, “A Biographical Sketch.” Here Tanner rehearses much of what is already known. Born in 1906, Menchik’s family left the Soviet Union after the revolution and she ended up in England by 1923. Her mother was English; her father was absent after the early 20s, although Menchik did not break relations.

Menchik joined the Hastings Chess Club, studed with Maróczy, and rapidly improved. She won the Women’s World Championship in 1927, which she defended six times, and was the first woman to compete in both Carlsbad and Hastings in 1929 after a banner year in international play. Perhaps her most important tournament was Moscow 1935, won by Botvinnik and Flohr. Menchik finished in last place. She married in 1937, and was killed in London during the Blitz in 1944.

Menchik was largely seen by her peers as a curiousity at best. Albert Becker demeaningly called for the creation of a “Vera Menchik Club” at Carlsbad 1929, membership in which would be awarded to anyone who lost to her. (Draws counted as half- or candidate membership.) What irony, then, that Becker was the club’s inaugural member!

DUTCH DEFENSE (A85)
Vera Menchik
Albert Becker
Karlsbad (3), 02.08.1929

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.c4 c6 4.Nc3 e6 5.e3 Ne4 6.Bd3 f5 7.Ne5 Qh4 8.0–0 Nd7 9.f4 Be7 10.Bd2 Nxe5 11.dxe5 Bc5 12.Bxe4 fxe4 13.Qb3 Qd8 14.Na4 Be7 15.Bb4 b6 16.Bxe7 Qxe7 17.cxd5 exd5 18.Rac1 Bb7 19.Nc3 Qf7 20.Qb4 Rd8 21.Rfd1 Ba8 22.h3 Qe7 23.Qxe7+ Kxe7 24.b4 Rd7 25.Rd2 Rhd8 26.Ne2 Rc8 27.Rdc2 Rdc7 28.Nd4 g6 29.Nb5 Rd7 30.Kf2 h6 31.g4 a6 32.Nd4 Rdc7 33.f5 g5 34.Kg3 Bb7 35.h4 gxh4+ 36.Kxh4 Kf7 37.Kh5 a5 38.bxa5 bxa5 39.Nb5 Rd7 40.e6+, Black resigned.

Tanner explains how prejudice against Menchik still exists. Her “restrained and positional” style (23) has been called “dull” by Internet dullards, who evaluate her playing strength as that of a US Chess expert, and who pooh-pooh her ongoing choice to live a “well rounded life” instead of “eating and breathing chess.” (ibid.) It’s hard to imagine that anyone would criticise a man for such imagined sins.

To his credit, and in agreement with the likes of Leonard Barden and John Saunders, Tanner pegs Menchik as being of International Master strength. He also paints a fuller picture of Menchik’s style in Part II, “Her Games, Events and Crosstables.” Among the 350 games in the book is her most famous combination, played in the fourteenth game of the 1937 match for the Women’s World Championship against Sonja Graf, and this delightful knight sacrifice against Sir George Thomas from 1932.

KINGS INDIAN DEFENSE (E85)
Vera Menchik
Sir George Thomas
London (4), 04.02.1932

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.f3 0–0 6.Be3 e5 7.Nge2 b6 8.Qd2 Nc6 9.d5 Ne7 10.g4 Nd7 11.Rg1 a5 12.0–0–0 Nc5 13.Ng3 Bd7 14.h4 a4 15.h5 Qb8 16.Bh6 Qa7 17.Bxg7 Kxg7

Menchik-Thomas

18.Nf5+! Nxf5 19.gxf5 a3 20.f6+ Kh8 21.Qh6 axb2+ 22.Kb1 Rg8 23.hxg6 fxg6 24.Qxh7+!, Black resigned.

There are also problems with Tanner’s work. The first is the presence of numerous typos and unremoved editorial markings. Names and words are repeatedly misspelled, sometimes lines away from correct spellings, and the remnants of a writer’s placeholding trick (multiple x’s, a sign to come back and fill in later) were never removed. (24, 166) Such carelessness is surprising for a McFarland title, especially one that is described in the colophon as a second printing with corrections.

Other critics, notably Vlastimil Fiala [1] and Edward Winter [2], have taken Tanner to task, both for the typos and for a relative lack of historical research. Fiala’s concerns have more than a whiff of sour grapes – he admits that he had once aspired to write his own biography of Menchik – and his judgment that the book “should never have gone to print” is very harsh.

Still, there is a kernel of truth in their critiques. Tanner’s bibliography is comparatively slight, and Fiala notes multiple chess journals and columns that Tanner could have reasonably been expected to consult. Such research is vastly easier in the modern day, especially with new databases available in English libraries. See Tim Harding’s essential British Chess Literature to 1914: A Handbook for Historians, particularly Chapter 8 (“On Doing Chess History Today”), for more on this key topic.

Let me also mention one last concern, and a personal peeve. Tanner uses internet sources (chessgames.com, 365chess.com) to cite multiple game references. This is substandard. No game database, not even MegaBase, is free from errors, and chessgames.com even allows users to upload data without an apparent quality check. It’s the chess equivalent of citing Wikipedia, and it’s out of place in a book that aspires to typical McFarland quality.

To sum up: Vera Menchik is, despite its very real flaws, a welcome addition to the literature. It shows that there is space for scholarship on women’s chess, and it gives readers unfamiliar with Menchik a competent overview of her life and career. Unfortunately it also feels like a book that, in its publication, shirks the hard historical work that would complete it. One can hope for a second edition that is actually corrected and somewhat expanded.

One book does not change an entire field. There remains a palpable Whiggish tendency in contemporary chess historiography, one that presents the history of chess as a progression of great men and their great ideas. (Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors is a paradigm of this tendency.) In doing so, it passes over traditional underclasses like minorities and women, and undermines the role of artifacts and technology.

Andy Soltis’ Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Kortchnoi: A Chess Multibiography with 207 Games can be read in this way. The criticism is, in part, correct, but one of the many things I like about the book is the way that Soltis focuses on the contributions of women in the success of their famous partners.

Soltis says in the Preface that Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Kortchnoi was a book he wanted to write as he researched his canonical Soviet Chess 1917-1991, but could not at that point (2000) for a lack of original source documents. His idea was to show the intertwined lives, both professionally and personally, of these great champions – and show it warts and all. In this he succeeds, and anyone interested in any of these players or chess in the Soviet era would do well to pick up Soltis’ book.

There is a lot of tea spilt in Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Kortchnoi. There are plenty of beautiful, well-annotated games, of course. The real interest, at least for me, is found in the unveiling of private lives.

No man is an island, and there is value in seeing how biography and influence shaped the ‘great men’ of chess history. We learn about Korchnoi’s horrific childhood in a decimated Leningrad, and how it haunted him. We are there when Spassky meets his ‘fater’ Bondarevsky, and we see the effect that it had on an undisciplined youth’s life and career. Soltis’ telling includes the influence of friends and lovers, trainers and government apparachiks, and it makes for a richer picture of these tremendous players than is commonly known.

Soltis makes special mention of two women in the book. Sally Landau met Mikhail Tal in 1959, marrying him the next year. Landau, a powerful personality in her own right, was an actress and singer of regional repute, Her ten years of marriage to Tal were tempestuous, but she bore him his son Gera, and her 2003 biography of Tal is a primary (if contested) source of knowledge of Tal’s life.[3]

Even more interesting is Rona Petrosian, the power behind Tigran Petrosian’s throne. Soltis makes a convincing case for the pivotal role Rona played in Tigran’s success, pushing and goading him to press and win, making and using connections with the vlasti (Soviet officials and bureaucracy) to benefit her husband. She “completed” him (50); without Rona, there would not be Tigran as we know him today.

There is a movement in public history towards the reconfiguration of what counts as history. History is moving beyond the retelling of facts from above, from the perspective of the victor or powerful. Soltis’ book does some of that – how could a book on three World Champions not? – but it also attends to the stories of those left out by the traditional narrative. Read it for those stories, and stick around for the beautiful games.


[1] Fiala, Vlastimil. “Chess Review: Vera Menchik Biography.” Quarterly for Chess History (5:20: Spring 2019), 563-581.

[2] See (1) http://www.chesshistory.com/winter/winter148.html (2) and http://www.chesshistory.com/winter/winter175.html

[3] A translation of Landau’s book has been announced by the English / Russian publisher Elk & Ruby.